The father was in intensive care at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. This was eight years ago. The accident on the Vermont Avenue on-ramp of the Santa Monica Freeway had just about killed him. The Jaws of Life had been used to pull him from the wreckage of his expensive sports car. Doctors had operated on him for three hours, removing pieces of skull that had been pushed into his brain. More operations would follow.
"He's resting," the doctors reported to his wife, Jackie.
"Who's with him?" she replied.
"He's strapped to the bed," the doctors said. "There's a nurse down the hall. Checks him all the time."
January 9, 1995
"There should be someone with him," she said.
"No, no. He's fine."
"You don't know him."
The father awoke. Where was he? He is not sure now what thought processes were taking place. Maybe none. Maybe he was just working on instinct. All that is certain is that he wanted to go home. He was held down by straps. An assortment of IV tubes and electric monitors was attached to his body. What was all this? He wanted to leave. He started rocking the bed, rocking and rocking until somehow the bed was flipped straight up and he was standing, standing with the bed strapped to his back. He was going home.
"I started walking," he says. "I was all right for three or four steps. Then I got to the door. The bed was too tall. It hit the top of the doorway, and I went crashing back, the bed and me, everything. They came in, found me on the floor. That was when they discovered I also had a broken leg. There were so many other injuries they had to take care of that they hadn't even spotted the broken leg."
The father, Ken Norton, can be a stubborn man.
The son reached out to make a tackle. This was last season, the ninth game of the year, against the Philadelphia Eagles. Who knows what happened? He was at a bad angle, twisted a wrong way. Something like that. He had hold of the ballcarrier, but he was violating some basic law of physics: Instead of falling down or staggering, the ballcarrier kept moving; instead of letting go, dropping an impossible task, the son hung on to the ballcarrier's body. The biceps in the son's right arm was ripped from the bone.
He remembers the feeling mostly as a muscle cramp. There wasn't any cartoon sound, any sudden stab of incredible pain. A cramp. He went back to the bench, and the Dallas Cowboys' doctor explained what had happened. The muscle had ripped away and bunched into a knot high in his arm. The doctor said it was like a window shade that had rolled up in a hurry. The son had the arm taped and finished the game.
"You have two choices," the doctor explained later. "You can have the surgery right away. The muscle will be as good as it's ever been, but you'll be out for the season. Or you can wait until the season's finished. We can't guarantee anything then. If you wait for the operation...do you know how, when you leave a piece of meat on a counter for a couple of days, the meat becomes hard and brittle on the outside? That's what will happen to the end of your muscle. It will be much tougher to reattach. It's your choice."
The son thought for a day and said he would play. He felt that the mental pain of not playing would be worse than the physical pain he might experience. There was nothing he could do for the injury, no therapy, no pharmaceutical treatment. The initial feeling, the cramp, never left. Sundays were the best days, because the adrenaline, the excitement, took control. The other days were worse. The injured area became swollen. He could not do the easiest things around the house. He could not carry his eight-year-old stepdaughter to bed. The muscle was still a knot at the top of his right arm.
He played the entire season. He couldn't intercept a pass. He couldn't lift his arm higher than his shoulder. Curiously, he played as well as he ever had. The injury forced him back to the basics of football, moving his feet, getting into position to make a tackle, lowering his head and making sure he put his entire shoulder on the ballcarrier. The Cowboys won the Super Bowl. He went from that game to Hawaii, where he played in his first Pro Bowl.
"I could have had the operation after the Super Bowl, but I wanted to go to the Pro Bowl," he says. "That had been a goal of mine for a long time."
He had the operation in February, after the Pro Bowl. The son, Ken Norton Jr., also can be a stubborn man.
The story should be so easy. The son of a former heavyweight champion of the world is an All-Pro linebacker, now playing with the San Francisco 49ers, in the first year of a six-year, $9.6 million contract. There have not been many father-son combinations like this in American sports, two athletes so successful in two different games. There should be pictures of the two of them on the covers of magazines, face next to face—two versions of the same smiling face, 20 years or so apart. There should be endorsements. Same name. Same face. Same success. There should be...joy.
The father raised the son by himself. That was what was so different. He wasn't some absentee dad, some visitor for weekend walks in the park or trips to Disneyland or Knott's Berry Farm. When his first marriage broke up in 1967 and his son was only 14 months old, the father took custody. He was the single parent in the single-parent household. They were voyagers on the same trip, the father and the son. Nobody else.
"I raised him from when he was wearing diapers," the father says. "I changed those diapers. There weren't any Pampers around, any of that. I washed the diapers. I stuck my hands in the poop. No man I knew was doing what I was doing. Not one. People couldn't believe it. I was a pretty good-looking guy, but I'd meet women, and when they found out I had a son? Forget it."
The heavyweight championship was still only a faraway glimmer. The father came late to boxing, was 22 years old, a Marine Corps veteran and the father of a one-year-old before he started his pro career in 1967. He didn't love the sport, didn't even like it very much, but he was 6'3" and 210 pounds, and he saw boxing as a way to make some money and become famous. To become special. He had been a good athlete as a kid in Jacksonville, Ill., playing all the sports, moving along to play some football at Northeast Missouri State before joining the Marines. He never forgot the feeling of being a star, the feeling of being different from the pack. That was what he wanted as much as anything. Not to be ordinary.
His days were long and repetitive. He awoke, did his running and then came home to prepare breakfast for his son. The son went to school, and the father went to mind-numbing work on the production line at a Ford plant. The son went to a neighbor's house after school. The father went to the gym for sparring and workouts. He came home at seven o'clock, whipped. Some nights, if he was low on money, he would come home later, hoping that the neighbors had included his son at their dinner table.
"There were some rough times," the father says. He laughs. "I wouldn't have wanted to buy one of those Fords I was making during the day. I hope someone else was checking them down the line.
"We never really were at poverty level, but we were close to it. We ate a lot of cold hot dogs. I'd bring home a package of hot dogs and open them up, and we'd eat. Hot dogs. Bologna. Boiled eggs. That was our diet."
The break came when he fought Henry Clark on the undercard of the Muhammad Ali-Bob Foster fight in Stateline, Nev., in November 1972. After he knocked out Clark in the ninth round, he was signed to fight Ali, in San Diego on March 31, 1973, for $50,000. The first thing he did was buy a tract house in a better section of Los Angeles, assuming the mortgage payments of friends who had divorced. He and his son now had a real home. The second thing he did was quit the Ford plant to prepare for Ali.
The fight was supposed to be a walkover on Ali's march back to glory after his 3½-year banishment from boxing. No contest. The father didn't see it that way. He was not intimidated, as so many of Ali's opponents had been. He had sparred with Ali for three days a couple of years earlier in L.A.'s Overstreet Gym. He saw Ali as human. For the first time the father was able to train as a full-time fighter, to go away for three weeks to a camp. By the time he went into the ring in San Diego, he felt "as if I had a wrench in my back pocket." He hit Ali with the wrench in the first round, a right hand that broke Ali's jaw. The fight went the full 12 rounds. The father was the winner by a split decision.
"Life changed overnight," the father says. "Just as fast as that. I was able to do all the things I hadn't been able to do. I was able do all the things for my son that I wanted."
The father was 28 years old. The son was seven. The son had cried and cried about leaving the old neighborhood, leaving friends and classmates in elementary school. The father told the son to believe him, the new life would be better. The son now had bikes when everyone else had bikes, skateboards when everyone else had skateboards, sneakers that were clean and new. The father had the money and celebrity he wanted.
The one thing he lacked—he thinks now—was the desire to be the best; the ruthlessness, the destructiveness that boxing champions bring to the game. Though he had a succession of big fights over the next nine years, including two losses by close decisions to Ali, and though he inherited a vacant title and held it for 10 weeks before losing it to Larry Holmes in 1978, the father always thought of boxing as a sport, a game—basketball or tennis with gloves. And he still did not particularly like it.
"I didn't grow up with it, the way most fighters did," he says. "And I didn't want my son to grow up with it, either. I saw the way it happens: Kids come around the gym, and they become part of it. They can't stay away. I never brought my son with me to the gym. I had him come to camp once or twice for two or three days, but that was it. Then I sent him home."
The father wanted a better life for the son. Isn't that a parental imperative? Doesn't every father want to raise a younger, smarter, more successful version of himself, someone who won't feel the same bruises and bumps along the way? The son never saw the father fight in person. The father wouldn't allow it.
"What happened, a new coach came to my high school for football," the son says. "We had never had good teams, always finishing at the bottom of the league, a lot of times 0-11. The new coach was very enthusiastic. He went around the school looking for kids who should come out for the team, kids who weren't already playing. The name a lot of people told him was mine. The coach came to me and asked if I would play football. I told him he should talk with my father."
Football was another game that the father did not particularly favor. He had played, and he had seen the things coaches do. Why send a kid into all of those collisions when his body had not developed fully? Why play for someone who teaches a kid to plain a helmet square on someone else's numbers, neck injuries be damned? The son was now a junior, though, and almost as big as the father. He had worked out on Nautilus machines at a gym, developing a textbook set of muscles. He already was a very good basketball and baseball player. The father talked with the football coach and liked enough of what he heard. The son became a tailback for Westchester High. The son loved it.
The team still was lousy, winless the son's junior year, but he was a terror. There were all the usual inspirations—the competitiveness of the games, the adolescent emotions flowing like perspiration from every pore—but he also had his name. Ken Norton Jr. Strangers thought he had been raised in some Hollywood hothouse, the pampered child of a pampered star. They had no idea. He remembered the cold hot dogs and the worn sneakers, facts of life. He remembered that his father went off to work and came home with bruises all over his face. That was natural. The son grew up as tough as anyone. Understand? He was proud of his father's name and strangled by it at the same time.
"I suppose, overall, it helped," the son says. "I know it kept me out of some fights. There always was one guy, maybe one guy on each level of school, from grammar school to junior high to high school, who started something, but mostly the name kept me away from trouble. I also was pretty big, and athletics came easy. Sports were pleasant. It's pleasant to be picked first all the time."
The Westchester record jumped to 4-4-1 in his senior year, and the college coaches came in greedy waves. He chose the ride offered by UCLA, the local school, over the one offered by USC, the other local school. He wanted to be close to home. In his mind, he was going to be a great Bruin tailback. In the coaches' minds, he was going to be a great linebacker. He had the coaches talk with his father. They explained that they thought his son was the best athlete on the team and could fill an immediate need at linebacker. The father agreed. The son agreed. He was a letter-winner as a freshman.
The family had expanded over the years, because the father had married Jackie Norwood, and she had given birth to a girl and then a boy, and she already had a son from a previous marriage, so there always was a crowd at UCLA games. The father wore a cowboy hat, and the son could see it from the field at the Rose Bowl. The father went to every home game.
"You're reliving your boyhood through your son," Jackie told the father.
"Yes?" he replied. "So, what are you trying to say?"
The accident on Feb. 23, 1986, the winter of the son's sophomore year, was an unwelcome break in a run of happiness and success. The father still does not know what happened. He was going home from a fund-raiser for Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, and something obviously went wrong on that Vermont Avenue onramp. The accident changed the father's life faster than the win over Muhammad Ali had. He went from a robust, athletic, handsome man, an actor in B movies and on television, to a survivor who was partly paralyzed on his right side and couldn't talk. His face was a mess. His memory was knocked out of commission. He spent a month in the hospital after he was returned to his bed that first weekend, and he embarked on a long recovery that still isn't finished.
"I remember sitting at home and staring at a chair," the father says. "I'd say, 'Chair,' to myself, making it my goal to someday be able to get up and walk to the chair. I couldn't tell anyone else about it, because I couldn't speak. I'd just say it to myself. 'Chair.' They said first that I wouldn't live and then that I wouldn't walk or talk. I was just determined. I had that athletic training, getting off the canvas. I drew strength from the head, from the heart, from God. I wound up doing all the things they said I wouldn't do. One of the doctors was so amazed that he wanted to take me with him around the country when he gave lectures. An exhibit or something. But I didn't want to be any exhibit."
He went back, of course, to the son's games. He remembers one early game—remembers it just now, this minute—when he was being helped down a corridor and Keith Jackson, the ABC commentator, came toward him. Jackson stopped and started talking about the son, about what a fine young man the son was and what a good player. The father remembers trying to reply. He had never met Jackson but had always liked his work. The father remembers all the words gathering in his head, all the things he wanted to say. He remembers that the words just wouldn't come out of his mouth.
The son was a help during all of this. He did many of the things for the father that the father had done for him so long ago. He bathed him. He helped him from one room to another. He pushed him for long walks in a wheelchair. He also kept playing football. The father would be bundled for the games, sit for as long as he could in the sun and then retire to the parking lot, where he would listen to the games on the car radio in the shade. The son played so well that he was drafted high in the second round (the 41st pick overall) by the Dallas Cowboys.
"I don't want to talk about that," the son says when asked about the days after the crash. "It's all been written. It's all been done before."
The 49er publicity department informs interviewers that the son doesn't want to talk about the father. The subject is out-of-bounds.
So easy. The father is an inspiration for the son. The son is an inspiration for the father. The story should not be written once, it should be rewritten as many times as possible, kept in libraries for fathers and sons to read and read again in as many forms as possible. Triumph over adversity. All of that good stuff. Bands should play, and the father should be shown walking and talking as well as he now does, and the son should be shown nailing some poor soul with a straight-on hit. That's how it should be. So easy.
The father cried in front of a television camera. He did not think he would do this, but he did. The split, the rift, the—what's the proper word? Disagreement?—between the father and the son became public before the Super Bowl in 1992. The son mentioned the problem at one of the press conferences by the Cowboy players, and the scurrying began. Was it true that the father was not going to the game, even though it was being held at the Rose Bowl, less than a two-hour drive from his home in Laguna Niguel? How could this be? The cameras arrived at the father's house.
The father was all right at the start, talking to a reporter from a local station, but the more he talked about his son, the sadder he became, and the tears started to come. He is not sure how long he cried, but when he stopped, he looked up and the camera was still rolling.
"Let me say this," the former heavyweight champion of the world said to the reporter as he regained his composure. "If any of this crying gets on TV, I'm going to be very, very angry. Do you understand me? Very, very angry."
"More people called me about that interview," he says now. "They said they saw me talking, and then my face started to get real solemn, and then the interview ended in the middle. 'What happened?' they wanted to know. 'You were cut off in midsentence.' The guy was true to his word. He didn't show me crying."
The split, the rift, the disagreement, had happened long before this. Almost a year. The son had wanted to get married. The father wanted caution. Again, is that the proper word? Caution? The father says he was not worried so much about the son's choice of a wife but about the idea of marriage. The son was making a lot of money. The son was a celebrity. The father wanted some assurances that the son wasn't making too hasty a decision in getting married. The son was in love. He wasn't worried about any of that.
Thrown into the mix was the fact that Angela Fike, the prospective wife, was white and divorced and had a young daughter. Something happened in the arguments between the father and the son. Battle lines were drawn. The father has read reports that the son thought the father was angry because Angela was white. Both the father and son deny that. They say her skin color didn't matter at all'. The father was just trying to make sure that everything came out right.
"There was a lack of communication," he says. "That's what it was. I could never communicate what I wanted, and he could never communicate back to me. We could never get each other to understand what we were saying."
Whatever happened, the break was made. The son was married. The father was not invited to the wedding. The silence began. The two men who had talked daily, who had been the only people in the room for all those years, now did not talk at all. The father was devastated. He didn't go to the Cowboy games during the season, didn't go to the Super Bowl in Pasadena. He watched the game on television. He says he was "a basket case for about a year."
Then he decided: If his son was going to be hard, then he also would be hard. "I had to think about my other children," he says. "I could not let them see that the way to control me was to shut me out. I had to raise them right. I still loved my son—I always will—but once I made my decision, everything was easier. I was all right again. It became easier and easier."
He talks a lot about his other children now. The oldest, Brandon, the stepson, is in L.A., 24 years old, "trying to figure himself out," the father says. The youngest, KeneJon, is only 13 years old but already stands 5'11". Indications are that he will be the biggest, most athletic Norton of all. The father would like a baseball career for him. Wouldn't that be something, a pro baseball player added to the line? Already, though, there are arguments about football. The son wants to play. The father wants him to hold back.
The daughter, Kenisha, is 18 years old, going to junior college and living at home. "She graduated from high school in June," he says. "Went to the prom. I was real worried about that, the things that happen at the prom. The boy who came to pick her up, a nice boy, I decided to have a talk with him. Just the two of us. I decided to talk on his level, not as an adult talking to a kid, but man-to-man. We talked a little bit, and I looked him straight in the face and said, 'Now, look, I want you to understand one thing. If you touch my daughter, I'm going to kick your butt. You might not like this idea, and you might tell your father about it, and if he has a problem, you tell him to see me, and I'll kick his butt too. Same goes for your grandfather. You touch her, and I'll kick all of your butts. Understand?"
Some of the effects of the accident still remain—the father still docs not move well on his feet, his equilibrium still off, and he sometimes slurs his words a bit if he does not concentrate—but he is still a huge man. His arms are huge. His hands are huge, with fat rings on four of his huge fingers. His face has been reworked in the broader strokes of middle age, with deep character lines that show the effects of a life lived hard.
"So I stayed up, waiting, the night of the prom," the father says. "The dance was supposed to be over at half past 12. Twelve-twenty, the doorbell rings. 'We're home, Mr. Norton.' "
Crazy as it sounds, he had another automobile accident live months ago. An older woman in a car piled into him at an intersection, sending the pickup he was driving into a spin. Luckily a chain-link fence kept him from plowing into a tree. His head was cut and his spine was twisted when he hit the fence, but he survived this crash, too.
"I've received some mail about all of this," the son says. "The letters have been very nice. Thoughtful. A lot of the people tell me about the problems they have had with their own parents, about the way the problems have been resolved. I guess the common thread is, you only have one set of parents in this world, and you don't want to lose them, you don't want to wait until it's too late. I understand what they're saying. I appreciate that."
He is articulate and pleasant. His face, his frame, are the father's face and frame drawn in caricature, all the muscles and the predominant chin extended even farther. He says the muscle in his right arm hasn't come back to form, although the strength and flexibility have, but when he flexes the muscle, it is the size of a softball. The one on his other arm is the size of a cantaloupe.
He, too, talks about the situations of everyday domestic life. When he chose to move from Dallas to San Francisco for the big contract, everyone was uprooted. His stepdaughter, Brittney, is eight years old, virtually the same age he was when he and his father moved from the old neighborhood into their new house. She had the same concerns, leaving one school and going to another. He understood. The wife is from Dallas, and she was leaving her relatives and friends. California? He rented a house in the foothills outside Santa Clara, where the 49ers train, but when the wife and the stepdaughter became homesick for Texas and wanted to move back, he said that was fine. He is the traveling businessman now, away for an extended trip, getting home whenever possible.
The newest addition to the family is daughter Sabrina. She is nine months old. She is not walking, of course, but she crawls and has found her voice. She is "a holy terror" when she screams, he says. It is his first experience with a baby, checking out each new thing she does, and it is hard being apart from her now. No, his father has not seen her. Angela is also pregnant again. "Having Sabrina was just about the greatest thing I ever did," the son says. "Outside of getting married."
The pressure of having a famous father is long gone. Two Super Bowl rings and a trip to the Pro Bowl and the five-year contract took care of that. The announcers don't even mention the Junior part of his name much anymore. He simply is Ken Norton. His arrival with the Niners was rocky at first—the defense almost totally rebuilt with new and expensive talent, everyone expecting an immediate return on the investment—but as the season has progressed, he has done all the things he was hired to do, all the things he did in Dallas. Maybe more. There is a very good chance that he will go back to the Super Bowl, this time with the Niners. How good would that be? Three Super Bowls in three years? He could be the best inside linebacker in the NFL.
His favorite football memory so far is his first Super Bowl, three years ago. It was a game that could have been drawn up in his imagination. The Cowboys did everything right. The Buffalo Bills did everything wrong. He did everything right. He had 10 tackles, knocked Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly out of the game with sprained knee ligaments on a blitz and picked up a fumble and ran nine yards for a touchdown. He seemed to be everywhere. In the second quarter, third-and-goal, he made the best play he has ever made. Buffalo running back Kenneth Davis was headed straight for the end zone. The son headed straight for Kenneth Davis. The rest of the people on the field were stripped away. He lowered and charged and made the tackle he had always dreamed of making. The form was perfect. The result was perfect: Davis dropped short of the goal line. The Cowboys proceeded with their 52-17 rout. "That will always be my dream tackle," the son says. "When I think about the tackle I want to make, that's it."
There is irony here. That was the game at the Rose Bowl. That was the game the father watched on television. That was at the end of the week when the disagreement became public, when everybody found out. That was the week the father cried. That was the best game the son ever played. "I had known what was happening for a long time," the son says in an even voice. "It was new to everyone else, but it wasn't new to me. I wasn't going to let anything spoil that Super Bowl."
The story still should be so easy. What has to happen? A handshake? A Thanksgiving dinner? Is there any doubt the father loves the son? Is there any doubt the son loves the father? Someone should intervene. Some circumstance should occur. It all should be so easy.
The first meeting in more than three years took place in September. The setting was not great. The father took Kenisha and KeneJon to the game when the Niners came to Anaheim to play the Los Angeles Rams. He had taken them to the Super Bowl last year in Atlanta, where they sat in the son's seats, but the father sat in seats given to him by NBC. He had wondered why NBC was so kind, but at least three times during the game he looked at the scoreboard monitor and saw his own face. He and his son were subplots in the big game. The entire country saw both of them. They never saw each other.
The Niner-Ram game was different. This time everyone sat in the son's seats. When the game, a 34-19 San Francisco win, was finished, everyone went down to that busy family area where members of the visiting team get on a bus for the airport. This was where the meeting took place.
"You're looking good," one man said to the other as they hugged.
"I love you," the other replied.
Who said what? It all was hurried. There was not much time for anything else. The father felt as if everyone were watching, as if both he and his son "had magnets in our pockets that attracted eyeballs. All the eyeballs were on us. Everyone knew what was happening." A little conversation. Another hug. The son went on the bus. The bus went to the airport.
The father says he called a few days later, and his son's wife answered the phone. He says things are fine with her, that she understands what he calls the "lack of communication" that triggered the problem. He says she talked about the things his granddaughter was starting to do and that he was missing. She asked when he was going to see his granddaughter. He says he replied that no one had invited him. He also says he talked for a few minutes with his son, friendly enough words, and that was that. There have been other calls since, a long conversation between the father and the son on Thanksgiving. Jackie had removed a large portrait of Ken Jr. from the wall of the living room in the Laguna Niguel home because the father became too depressed when he saw it, but now the portrait is back. Jackie talks with Angela often on the phone. Who knows what will happen next?
"It all takes time," the father says at one end of California. "I know we're apart, but I know that if anything happened to him, I'd be there in a hundredth of a second. I would hope he'd do the same for me."
"It's like we're standing with our backs to each other, but we're each peeking over our shoulder," the son says at the other end of the state. "We're each watching out for the other one, making sure he's all right."
Time. The father imagines a wedding in the future. His daughter's wedding. What will that be like? How strong will the guy have to be who marries Kenisha? The guy will look at the bride's side of the aisle and see a former heavyweight champion of the world staring at him. Then he will sec an All-Pro linebacker staring. KeneJon will be fully grown by then, the largest of the lot, and who knows what he will be? Brandon, too, is a large guy. What will the poor groom think? How nervous will he be? Won't that be good for a laugh?
Time. Stubborn men just need time.